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Is Mustard Gas Still Being Used in Treatment of Cancer of Lung?

By Beth Greenwood ; Updated August 14, 2017

During World War I and World War II, mustard gas was used as a chemical warfare agent. Soldiers exposed to the gas developed changes in their blood, and the physicians treating them speculated that mustard gas was a substance that might also be used to treat cancer.

The Basics

Mustard gas, more properly called nitrogen mustard, is an extremely toxic substance. Created by the Germans in World War I, it has been called the most effective chemical used in that war. If respirators were not worn, the death rate was about 50 percent. Any part of the body exposed to it will suffer, from burns on the skin to severe irritation of the lung tissues if the gas is inhaled.

Discovery of Chemotherapy

During World War II, some soldiers who were accidentally exposed to mustard gas were found to have low white blood cell counts, leading doctors to suspect the substance might have possibilities as a chemotherapy agent. White blood cells and cancer cells both grow very rapidly, and the theory was advanced that mustard gas might have the same effect on cancer cells as it did white blood cells. Some patients with advanced lymphomas – lymphoma is a cancer of the white blood cells – were given a form of mustard gas by vein. The patients improved, although the effects were not long-lasting.

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Nitrogen Mustard and Chemotherapy

Some drugs derived from nitrogen mustard are still used in chemotherapy today. They are usually used in combination with other chemotherapy drugs. Mustargen, mustine and mechlorethamine hydrochloride are all forms of nitrogen mustard. These medications are injected into the veins for lymphomas and cancers, and also used as a lotion for skin lesions of one type of lymphoma. Nitrogen mustard preparations are used in the treatment of Hodgkin's disease, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and as palliative chemotherapy in lung and breast cancers. Palliative chemotherapy is not a cure, but is used to shrink tumors or otherwise improve the quality of life.

Toxicity

Nitrogen mustard drugs are extremely toxic. In fact, they can actually cause cancer as well as help cure it. Medical personnel who prepare these medications must wear protective garb such as gloves and avoid inhaling the powder. According to Drugs.com, treatment with Mustargen can result in the patient developing a second malignant tumor, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer calls it a “probable carcinogen,” or cancer-causing agent.

Considerations

Although mustard gas in its original form is not used as a treatment for lung cancer, nitrogen mustard derivatives are still in use. Cancer is a life-threatening medical condition. If you have questions or concerns, talk to a health care professional.

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